Over the past few years, Oregon has developed quite a rivalry with the California Golden Bears. Both schools are very similar and the coaching staffs are quite familiar. Luckily, this has not seemed to breed any contempt, but helped to create a great rivalry, with a number of close games. Unfortunately, Oregon has come up short in the last few years. From dropping 4th down passes, to ill-timed turnovers and botched special teams plays, we have not seen the prettiest of endings.
This year's game should be another classic, and will hopefully feature two undefeated teams, with both looking to open conference play with a big win on a national stage.
Oregon Offense vs. California Defense
Hopefully by this point in the season, Oregon will have a few of it's questions settled. I believe that the O-line will at least be competent at this point. However, this young group will face a very stout test, facing the 3 man front that Cal will bring. The 3 projected starters (Cameron Jordan, Derrick Hill, and Tyson Alualu) are all experienced and are all big, with an average size of 6-3, 295 pounds. In fact, Phil Steele ranked Cal's D-line as better than USC's.
I really don't think it can be understated just how important this battle is. If the Cal defensive line can win the it consistently, the inexperienced Cal linebackers will be free to make plays. One of the biggest problems with the Oregon offense in last years game, especially during Blount's few carries, was the quick defensive penetration by the Cal front 7. If Cal is able to get into the backfield, it will be a very long day for the Oregon offense.
On top of this, Cal has a very strong secondary with excellent cornerbacks in Syd'Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan. If Masoli has time to throw, the Cal secondary can be beat (just as any defensive back can), but if Masoli is pressured early and often, the cornerbacks will have a very easy time clamping down on the Oregon passing game.
The defensive line is one of those units that can significantly alter the outcome of a game. The New York Giants won the Super Bowl 2 years ago because their defensive line was dominant. This D-line has the ability to neutralize the Oregon offense to the same degree. If the O-line can hold up and allow the rest of the offense to get into rhythm, the Oregon offense will be just fine, but the more I look at this matchup, the more it worries me.
California Offense vs. Oregon Defense
On the opposite side of the ball, the Oregon D will have one major task: stop Jahvid Best. Unfortunately, that's easier said that done. Best is inarguably the most explosive back in the country, and is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball.
Luckily, Oregon has an incredibly fast group of linebackers, and has consistently had great tacklers in the secondary, which should help to limit Best's production. With Cal's strength being in the running game, I would expect the defense to get as much pressure on the Cal backfield as possible, and force Cal to win the game through the air.
And this is Cal's biggest weakness. Last season saw below-average performance from the Cal passing game. In close game situations (within 3 possessions in the first half, 2 in the second), Cal's passing game had a success rate (if you need a refresher course on some of the advanced metrics I'm using, please read this primer) that ranked 106th in the country. While they had big plays from time to time, they simply had no consistency.
Surprisingly, this lack of consistency was seen throughout the offense. Cal was ranked 72nd in overall offensive success rate, while ranking 27th in Points Per Play+. This shows that while Cal had that home run ability, they had trouble moving down the field consistently. And this, in my opinion, led to many of their losses. Their 3rd down performance was simply pathetic, with an S&P+ on 3rd down that was 109th in the country. As good as Best is, he's not the type of player that can go out and get 5 yards, like Jacquizz Rodgers can.
And because of these issues, I just don't see the Cal offense improving to a great degree. They lose their star center, Alex Mack, and that impact won't be seen until Cal faces a very good front 7, which won't likely be until they roll into Eugene. If the Cal passing game improves and can gain some consistency, that will really open up their offense. But I don't see any indications that Cal will see that drastic improvement.
While both teams have strong return games, Cal has a significant advantage in Bryan Anger, who last year was a freshman All-American punter. He is one of the best punters in the country, and could easily lead to 10-20 yard swings in field position every single time possession changes. In a game that could turn defensive, this is extremely vital. Oregon will need whoever ends up punting to play out of their minds to keep up with Anger.
At this point, I wouldn't be surprised to see a defensive struggle. I'm not impressed by Cal's offense, but their defense has the ability to severely limit the Oregon offense. I really could see this game going any direction, and I wouldn't be surprised to see either Oregon or Cal win in a blowout. Cal's offense could be great, or it could be anemic. Oregon's O-line could hold it's own against the Cal D-line, or it could allow quick penetration to ruin the day. No matter how it turns out, this game will test both teams, and really show if either will be able to challenge USC for the conference title.
Unfortunately, I really hate the matchups in this game. Oregon's biggest offensive problems were seen against USC last year, because their defensive line dominated our offensive line. Despite the growth of Masoli, I could see the same thing happening. On the opposite side of the ball, if Cal gets a big play or two, and has a significant field position advantage, that could be all they need to win the game.
I don't think that Cal is consistent enoguh to make it through the season without a couple losses. However, at this point, I think Cal has a better chance of winning this game, though only slightly. I won't make a score prediction, but I think Oregon has a 45% chance of winning this game.